Africa, AI and the Need to Go Beyond Token Democracy

As Africa continues to grapple with the complex dynamics of democratic development and consolidation, AI is an emerging force that could significantly impact the trajectory of democracy on the continent. This was the subject of an invited talk I gave at the Centre for African Studies, University of Florida in April 2024. The talk drew upon several RIA products, including our report, submission to the UN, and public writing on AI and democracy in Africa.

It is well known that Africa’s experience with democracy has been uneven. While there have been some noteworthy democratic advancements, such as peaceful transfers of power in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, authoritarian tendencies have also surfaced. Military coups, crackdowns on opposition and civil society, and “leaders for life” paint a complex picture.

Yet, there is also a strong public demand for democracy across Africa, with opinion surveys indicating a robust desire for democratic governance. This reflects the hard-won struggles of generations of Africans who have fought for representation, equality under the law, and free and fair elections. These democratic aspirations are enshrined in important continental agreements like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The role of AI

Africans have leveraged digital technologies, including social media, to amplify political voices and mobilise for reform. However, the opaque, algorithmic nature of many AI systems also poses troubling challenges. Two factors require more consideration.

The first involves platform injustices that come from relatively unresponsive multinational Big Tech firms. These firms dominate the digital public sphere and have built AI systems that commodify user data and create conditions in which the creation of information disorders can be profitable. Additionally, the “attention economy” can undermine the quality of democratic discourse and representation. Baked-in biases in AI training data can also perpetuate societal inequalities, oftentimes in subtle ways.

Next, Africa’s relative technological dependence on external actors introduces geopolitical dynamics that complicate the democratic landscape. The rivalry between the US and China for influence in Africa has significant implications for how AI systems are deployed and governed on the continent and whether control rights over AI rests with African representatives.

Together these factors create uncertainties for the democratic process. Indeed, the subtle, obscured nature of AI makes it difficult to detect potential vote manipulation through micro targeted advertising or other means, for example.

The path forward

Addressing these challenges will require a multifaceted approach that empowers African democrats and civic actors. RIA has been a consistent advocate for strengthening global AI governance through the inclusion and presence of proportional African representation. We have also sought to advance greater international cooperation to establish guardrails around the use of AI in ways that protect human rights and democratic processes. For myself, this could involve measures like a global minimum corporate tax rate to help with redistribution to address the power concentration borne from Big Tech.

Another method to curb the incentives to use AI tools to disrupt the democratic process is to undertake a degree of electoral system reform. Reducing the high-stakes, winner-take-all nature of African elections could help mitigate the risks of AI-enabled manipulation. It may be useful to explore alternative electoral models, such as more decentralised, multi-layered political systems.

Africa’s democratic trajectory is at a critical juncture, with AI emerging as a disruptive force that could either enhance or undermine the continent’s hard-won democratic gains. By grappling with the complex interplay between AI and democracy, we can help shape a future where African citizens have a true and meaningful say in their political destinies.